Upon learning that Jean Alesi has qualified for the Indianapolis 500, the question many people immediately ask is: Why?
After all, Alesi spent 13 years in Formula 1 and drove for the likes of Red Bull, Benetton, and Ferrari. What more could he possibly hope to achieve?
But like many racers the world over, the opportunity to run at Indianapolis was too good to pass up.
“I’ve always been interested in Indianapolis,” Alesi says, “but by contract I was not able to do it because you cannot leave Formula 1 for one month in May because there are a minimum of two grand prix plus testing. I was not able to do it for at least 15 years.”
Once his Formula 1 career ended, Alesi’s interest in Indianapolis continued, but he didn’t have the connections he needed within INDYCAR to get his shot. But the return of engine competition changed everything.
“With Lotus, I am the ambassador of the brand,” Alesi points out. “I had this opportunity -- let’s go for Indianapolis. And I loved the idea. I prepared myself very hard, and now I’m here.”
Despite his long career in the high-powered world of Formula 1, Alesi has found much to learn as a racer taking on a superspeedway for the first time. “The speed is so high in Indianapolis,” he states. “When you start to be at the correct speed, everything as a consequence is big. Let’s give one example: when you finish the run and you come back to the pits, the pit entry in Formula 1 is something you do easily. You never really go into the defence like you have to do in Indianapolis. When you touch the brakes for the first time, you’ve never touched the brakes at all, so you have cold brakes. You have a car a little bit upset in terms of setup, so the car is pulling on one side of the track. It makes movement of the car very difficult because the car is pulling inside and you’re trying to force the car to stay on the other side, so you make a movement that’s not really normal and you can crash. These kind of little things you have non-stop, and that’s why you need to learn things you don’t learn in Formula 1.”
In observing the paddock in North America versus Europe, Alesi has noted some differences. “The fans in Italy, in France, or in Germany, they love motorsport like the American fans,” he notes. “But they haven’t the access. Here, there is access, and the way the race is spread on one month, it gives the opportunity of the fans to be not in a hurry or in a rush to jump on the driver for an autograph or photo because they know they will be here for the month, so if they’re not doing it now it’s going to be later. There is more freedom. In my view, in the balance of the two, I think [the North American way is] better.”
There’s one thing that’s stood out to Alesi as he’s prepared himself for the Greatest Spectacle in Racing. “What they’ve got in Indianapolis is the tradition,” he says. “They keep the same traditions, and they don’t change a millimeter. It’s great.”
And as he looks ahead to walking through Gasoline Alley and onto the grid on Sunday morning, Alesi is rife with anticipation. “Being a rookie, I’m waiting for this moment. That is the moment I follow on TV, but that’s life as it’s going to be on Sunday. I’m looking forward to it because it will seem unbelievable to me between thousands of fans.”
Steph Wallcraft is Co-editor of MoreFrontWing.com, a website dedicated to helping fans get a grip on INDYCAR news and views. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.